National Park Number: 56 of 59
Our visits to Utah’s five national parks have been scattered: we visited Zion in January, hit Arches and Canyonlands in March, and went to Bryce Canyon in June. At every point, we tried to include a visit to Capitol Reef, but our timing was always pinched. Which is how the closest park to our launching point in Idaho came to be the last of the lower 48’s national parks that we visited.
To me, this was perfect. Capitol Reef was the only park, other than Yellowstone, that I had visited before we started this trip. In college, we visited a few times: the first for me was while I was pregnant with Graham and acting as TA in an undergrad class called Wilderness Writing. The class was focused on writing personal essays, often about nature, and involved several field trips, including a 3-day visit to the research field station in Capitol Reef.
This trip ended up being formative for me: the first time I’d hiked seriously as an adult, or spent any real amount of time outdoors. I spent time with new friends from the class, most of whom had long histories of outdoor recreation and regularly went camping, hiking, rock climbing, canyoneering; some of them had served as counselors for Outward Bound, several of them were majoring in Recreation Management and planning careers dedicated to the outdoors. And they were all AWESOME—fascinating, smart, adventurous, curious people, some of whom have become close friends over the ensuing years. We spent our days in the park hiking and writing and sharing our writing, and though we weren’t doing anything particularly strenuous (a good thing, since I was 7 months pregnant and my lungs were all squished), those hikes and the conversations along the way still grew my confidence in this nascent idea of myself as an Outdoorsy Person.
Several months later, when Graham was 3 months old, we went back to Capitol Reef, this time as a retreat with my fellow master’s students and our creative writing professors. Again we hiked and wrote and shared what we wrote; this time I had a little Graham strapped onto me instead of inside me, and it struck me again that this was the kind of life I wanted for my little family: one where we spent lots of time outside, together, exploring and enjoying beautiful places.
Busy with school and work, we didn’t do much more hiking or park-visiting over the next few years. But 3 years later, and now even further removed from the outdoors in our new New York City home, we made a leap: we decided to jump into Outdoorsy-ness whole hog, and make it a mission to visit every U.S. National Park.
Now we’ve been to nearly all of them, have had our minds and hearts and muscles expanded by each of those 56, but returning to Capitol Reef was the only visit that felt like a homecoming. I love this place—every ounce of me loves it—the striations of the rock, the cool of the sand deep inside a slot canyon, the petroglyphs and pioneer history. Utah’s parks are some of my very favorites, and this is my favorite Utah park: low-key, but with all the geological highlights of the Grand Staircase, this place begs for deep exploration and extended time spent.
Our time, as ever (frustratingly), was shorter than we’d have liked, this time because of work deadlines and my hometown’s rodeo, where Graham was signed up (and stoked) for mutton busting. So we did our best, taking advantage of the high-season schedule to attend four separate ranger programs, eating pie made with fruit from Fruita’s orchards at the Gifford Farmhouse, taking in the petroglyph panels, bumping along the scenic drive, exploring the slots of Cohab Canyon and watching a thunderstorm roll in from the Goosenecks Overlook.
It was nostalgic and perfect and far too short; our visit was bittersweet, but also felt like something of a beginning. We can’t love a place this much and not return to it again and again, and I’m hopeful that this park will become a touchstone for our family, a spot that feels like “ours” forever and reminds us of the connection we want to build with public lands and with the outdoors.